Morality and the Modern Novel

A novel is a means of exploring human thoughts, feelings, and actions as set in specific environments. There is no other justification for the novel in its standard modern form, though many books labeled as novels are no such thing. Reading novels is now no more than a habit of barbarians living in the midst of the rubble and not even understanding the conflict between the very existence of narratives and the disorganized messes of our modern lives. Narratives deal with the struggle between order and disorder. Novels deal with struggles for moral order. This is true also of such narratives as the tales of the physical order which emerges in the form of of galaxies, indicating some underlying truth about the narrative nature of this universe.

Even at his most tendentious, Tolstoy managed to stir up our interest in his characters. This is because Tolstoy understood one thing and he understood it well: in an unsettled world, moral integrity is always a matter of conversion where there is a conflict between inside and outside. Whether we speak of a conversion to a state of virtuous paganism, such as the one that was fostered in the Patrician youth of the Roman Republic, or a conversion to a God-centered state such as that which intensifies upon entry to a monastery, that conversion process is extended over time. But there may well be moments when the outside world relaxes its pressures and often, in the case of a novel, that is when the end should come.


An alert reader can disagree with all of Tolstoy’s strange theories of history and with his paganistic interpretation of Christianity, but it doesn’t matter so much because Tolstory understood that one truth about the nature of moral integrity in an unsettled world. He understood, in too pessimistic a way, what Robert Louis Stevenson dealt with explicitly in “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”: by itself, good behavior is no more than a cover for those parts of us which are disordered.

What can we say about those modern middle-class people as described by Hannah Arendt in her analyses of the holocaust and other horrors of the modern world: nice and having no real moral integrity? She hit the nail on its ugly head when she said that Adolf Eichmann was a nice man who would have fit in quite well in an American suburb. Eichmann was the career bureaucrat who was in charge of rounding up the Jews and transporting them to the death-camps. He didn’t hate Jews and did what he could to help them escape until the regulations were tightened up. Then… Well, he had his career to worry about and he had a strange sort of moral integrity in which obeying the laws of modern nation-states and the regulations of modern bureaucracies is so important as to justify work in support of truly evil actions.

Every nice middle-class person of the modern world knows that morality starts with paying your mortgage and your taxes. And there are children to educate that they too might have good careers. I’ve written elsewhere about this situation. For now, I’ll only add that such a people can no longer recognize the reality of moral struggle. To admit that morality is a struggle and not a simple obedience of the law is to admit discomfort and potential disruption of a life of well-planned comfort and security. A true novel becomes a painful reminder that the modern middle-class live in a fragile oasis. And that oasis is nearly destroyed, though few there are who have eyes to see.

To his credit, Philip Jose Farmer in his otherwise over-rated Riverworld series (but I’m not an admirer of the sci-fi genre), played up the moral conflicts in the ‘resurrected’ Hermann Goering. Human life, despite the idiocies of the modern glofication of absolute evil, has to have some sort of moral order. Evil is not an alternative moral order but rather disorder of the sort which puts us on the path to non-existence.

And what about that strange character of history and Riverworld: Hermann Goering? He was a legitimate hero of World War I, a brave pilot of the Flying Circus commanded by the Red Baron made famous to Americans by Snoopy. Goering was in some serious sense a military man wishing to have good order in his life. And yet he found himself as one of the major protagonists in a tale of horror and disorder. He collapsed into a state of drug-addiction and mental disease. He was heading towards a state of total disorder, that is, a collapse into non-existence. He was not happy with his work or his life but he seemingly had nothing in the way of moral gumption. So, he injected narcotics in his efforts to mask the conflicts he couldn’t deal with.

People who are morally well-ordered, or at least wish to be, know the fear of non-existence. As a Christian, I would claim that worldly moral order by itself is only a temporary and inadequate resting-ground on the path towards non-existence. In any case, the novel’s strongpoint is what some literary critics and scholars seek to deny. The novel is not a form of narrative oriented to exploring conflicts betwee some well-established moral scheme and a hostile world. That is a tragic, or fatalistic, view that is in deep conflict with the Christian view that the price of redemption has been paid and salvation is available to those who would accept God’s offer of friendship.

Fatalism is a part of many Christian heresies and is also part of the beliefs of various sect-like branches of Christianity. But Christian moral beliefs have no part of fatalism and thus making our way in the world is a matter of exploration and not a matter of following some sort of guide we can pull out of our pockets whenever we have to make a decision. Christians have rules to be sure, but even those rules aren’t fully describable in terms of positive law or bureaucratic regulation. Christian rules help to make some sense of this messy world which is still being born; they do not help us to pretend to impose an unrealistic order upon that world. Christians, or others with the courage for moral exploration, consider it interesting to behold a novelistic display of the imperfect inner order of a man and the imperfect outer order of his environments or world, not in the way of passive entertainment but rather in the same way that we take a more concrete interest in the moral struggles of our parents and children and friends.

In fact, in the greatest of novels — even those concentrating upon external actions — the main struggle is between the inner and outer man. Can Lord Jim reconcile his feelings of being a brave and competent man with his actions the one time he was in a position — or so he’d thought at the time — to be a hero? Can Emma learn to see her actions in the light of the high moral standards she holds internally? Is Ishmael to die with the heroic and morally insane Ahab? Is he to share in the fears and death of the pagan harpooners? Is he to join with the mates in less meaningful fears or perhaps a fearlessness founded upon ignorance of the humanly legitimate reasons for Ahab seeking death in defiance of what-is and the pagans accepting death in great fear? Ishmael’s means of salvation seems to be one of the most profound jokes in all of literature for salvation of a sort comes by way of a coffin intended for the corpse of a barely reformed cannibal.

With this sort of overview, we can perhaps begin to understand a point raised by Lionel Trilling, one of the last of the morally sane liberals of the Modern Age. Professor Trilling noted that all great modern writers shared one feeling — dislike of the modern world. We can understand both that dislike and the dislike reciprocated by the middle-classes of the modern world — when they bother to read a worthwhile novel and find out how it attacks their delusions. Serious modern writers, even non-novelists, sense the disconnect between the assumptions of modern middle-class life and those of the vocation of a serious writer.

Even those like Melville, or myself, who delude themselves into thinking the world will accept their criticisms, quickly find they’ve crossed some sort of a divide that separates them from people unwilling to consider life as a moral adventure of sorts. Oddly enough, Christian novelists, such as Flannery O’Connor, or those hoping to find a reason to accept Christianity, such as Hermann Melville, find themselves in the company of willfully perverse moral explorers such as the French Symbolists of the 1800s. Together, they look back across that divide upon people whose virtues are those necessary to secure their prosperity. When that need seemed to match up with Christian moral values, there was at least a possibility of some pretense of true morality. When the marketplace frenzies more recently reached a very high level, there is a need to encourage any or all activities that generate cash-flow.

Because of this need to keep the cash flowing, we’ve found ourselves in a very strange position: even those who have chosen to live in perverse ways, homosexuals first of all, demand the right to be nice middle-class human beings with all the benefits of prosperity. Mr. and Mr. Middle-class American. Wherever she is, Gertrude Stein must be laughing so hard as to hurt. Moral rebellion domesticated to the needs of American prosperity. Soon, S&M parlors will be found in the best of shopping centers.

I guess that those nice, middle-class homosexuals must also be allergic to the moral explorations of true novels. If they read Andre Gide, it must be in a strange mood analogical to the nostalgia that wannabee moral conservatives feel when they read Jane Austen. I don’t know if the mass of respectable American homosexuals, married or not, have yet discovered that novelists are their enemies. They will be feeling the need to short-circuit this process of moral exploration because of what might be found. Like other nice middle-class Eichmanns, they will be pretending to read books pretending to be true novels, even creative novels. And the novel will continue to decay into strange forms which are uninteresting to those with spiritual or moral courage — check the new novel shelves of your local barn of books.

I’ll propose an answer to the question implied by Professor Trilling’s observation that serious writers dislike the modern world. Serious writers are, pretty much by definition, sensitive to moral order no matter what their personal lives or sexual tastes might be. Some might be better labeled as miner’s vultures rather than miner’s canaries, but they’re all sensitive to those poison gases given off by the presence of millions, perhaps billions, of Dr. Jekylls. Using Biblical imagery, we modern people are white-washed sepulchres, clean and bright on the outside and full of filth inside. Even those who pretend to be Christians have followed the revival-tent model of spiritual conversion: proclaim the Lord’s name and you’ve already got your ticket to Heaven. You can then return immediately and blindly to enjoying a prosperous life.

But we’re too nice to think of ourselves as morally gutless. We feel good about ourselves. We’re exactly the people Hannah Arendt described when she spoke of all those nice middle-class people who actually did the work for Hitler and Stalin and even that lesser devil, Cecil Rhodes. We’re nice on the outside and have no moral integrity, no moral order on the inside. As I’ve pointed out several times, and many of the things I say bear much repeating, Adam Smith feared that a prosperous commercial society would weaken its citizens until they would become exactly what Professor Arendt would see two centuries later: genial people with no moral guts.

And that leads to my current explanation of the decay of the modern novel: we modern people shy away from moral explorations the way a vampire shies away from the sun. Our human selves would not necessarily melt away under the light of self-examination, but our illusions and self-righteousness would melt away and we would be as naked as Job. It’s mystifying that so many claim to be Christians, even Biblical Christians, and yet fail to see the nakedness which is a part of being a creature.

To open our eyes and to see more truly would bring pain. We would learn the truth of the unique evil of Americans discussed by Solzhenitsyn in his introduction to the abridged version of “The Gulag Archipelago”: we commit fewer crimes than other powerful peoples but we walk away from those we do commit and immediately forget them, pronouncing ourselves to be pure. He was wrong but only in thinking it to be unique to Americans. It is unique to modern middle-class human beings. Our prosperity has made us into wretched, spineless creatures. We seduced ourselves into the delusion that we could be moral simply by adopting the virtues which are useful in sustaining that prosperity. And, thus, it’s strange from a wider perspective but makes sense in the modern perspective that defiantly active homosexuals can be as virtuous as anyone else. After all, they can pay their mortgages and taxes, they can pursue their careers in a dedicated and professional manner. They can buy lots of goods.

When the German middle-class found they could sustain their life of safety and comfort only by collaborating with the Nazis, they quickly accepted their situation. After all, serving Hitler didn’t present any real conflict with the primary moral values of the modern middle-class life. They could still pursue success in their careers or their simpler jobs. They could pay their mortgages and their taxes. They could encourage their sons to go off to fight bravely in the German Army. They could dress up nicely and go to church on Sunday.

For fifteen years, I’ve been writing novels that explore various aspects of this moral confusion of modern human beings. Not a one of those novels has been published and now I can understand why. The modern advocates of ‘do anything so long as you don’t hurt anyone else’ are really no different from the moralistic middle-class Christians who did so much damage to Melville’s literary career. They think to protect their delusions by pretending their beliefs and behaviors are beyond questioning. All moral problems have been solved — aren’t we a prosperous people? We can just settle down to enjoy prosperity knowing we’ve earned it by hard-work and a deep-down goodness.

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Explore posts in the same categories: Christianity, literature, Moral issues, philosophy, Religion

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